Solar Powered, Driverless Cars To Drive 8,000 Miles from Rome to Shanghai

vislab-car-1 photo

Image Credit: VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge

If you're planning on driving from Rome to Shanghai this summer, you might encounter two small, orange cars along the route. Covered with seven cameras and four laser scanners each, they'll look a bit different from your car. And the driver...well that's the thing. There is no driver. The cars, which really look like little vans, are autonomous, controlled by an on-board computer called GOLD: Generic Obstacle and Lane Detector.

Traveling the 8,000 miles of the old Silk Road over three months, the cars are the work the Artificial Vision and Intelligent Systems Laboratory (VisLab) of Italy's Parma University. The goal is for the cars to arrive at the Shanghai World Expo, whose theme is "better cities, better life." VisLab explains the point of the experiment:

The aim is to demonstrate, through an extensive and impressive test, that the current technology is mature enough for the deployment of non-polluting and no-oil based autonomous vehicles in real conditions. Moreover the Municipality of Rome, an active player in this project, is planning to exploit these vehicles downtown to deliver goods to shops, collect trash, and arrange sustainable mobility in the last mile.

The journey will take the cars through hot, humid and freezing climates, through mountains and deserts, as well as major urban areas. To get through cities such as Rome- full of pedestrians and unexpected obstacles- the autonomous vehicles (which will in fact have passengers, technicians there to monitor their performance and take over in case of an emergency) will follow human-driven lead cars.

We've seen impressive solar-powered journeys before, but this one may take the cake. University of Parma professor of computer engineering Alberto Broggi, told NPR that the cars, once perfected, could be used in agriculture (imagine an electric tractor running 24/7), mining and commercial transportation. But could they take over our cities altogether? And if they did, would that leave humanity- and the planet- in a better situation? It's hard to say, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that the vehicles are electric, and solar-powered.

You can learn more about the VisLab Intercontinental Challenge Autonomous Challenge on its website, as well as follow the cars as they take on the journey, starting next week.

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